Companies have long known that people’s sense of who they are influences their purchase decisions. Even so, the power of that basic premise has yet to be exploited fully. It is not captured by segmentation and targeting based on easily observable and superficial classifications, such as simple demographics. Nor is it usually captured by static, psychographic personality profiles based on broad lifestyle associations linked to product categories. Instead, a person’s “identity” is a complex, often fluctuating, deeply enduring aspect of how that individual sees himself, and the labels that consumers use to define who they are do not necessarily correspond to the variables that marketers typically rely on.
Identity marketing, which recognizes the complex process of how customers become strongly attracted to the brands and products that help them to express who they are, is the next step in the evolution of the field. It is a potential steppingstone to what is now being referred to as “cult marketing.” When performed effectively, it can transform a firm’s brands or offerings from a mere collection of products into a deeper constellation of self-embodied lifestyle symbols. Indeed, identity marketing can enable organizations to build stronger brands and more durable customer relationships. But companies first need to understand the crucial role that identity plays in their customers’ lives.
What Is Identity?
Identity can be defined as the myriad labels that people use to express who they are. Consumers categorize themselves on the basis of demographics, social roles and shared consumption patterns or preferences. The potential identities that people possess are both numerous and fluid, varying over an individual’s lifetime and across situations. In a work setting, for example, a person’s professional identity as an entrepreneur might be at the top of her mind. Later, at home, her identity as a parent may move to the forefront. And on the weekends, her identity as an outdoor enthusiast could take precedent. Identities can be thought of as hats that consumers put on and take off. Psychographic segmentation ignores this complexity by assuming the existence of one hat that fits all occasions.
Identity marketing recognizes that customers are more powerfully attracted to products and brands that are linked to their multiple identities. This connection may come about because the brand symbolizes a customer’s actual identity, but a brand may also embody an “aspirational identity” — the type of person an individual admires or wants to become more like.